We have all heard of Ugly Christmas Sweaters but I realized today that we might consider a new card genre: The Ugly Christmas Card…
Recently Kylee read some of my writing and said one word: “Bittersweet.” She is not wrong. The through-line of my words refuse to play a simple melody in major key. I may prefer the triumphant sounds that major keys make, but our life is filled with stories that also dip into the minor chords and have a more sad or sinister sound. That is why Christmas cards and Instagram posts can be so disorienting. They traditionally share highlights and triumphant stories all wonderful and worth celebrating. But for some, it makes us wonder if they go through life with any minor key moments? Do they have darker tones or tales of woe to tell? And our cynical selves assume no; but I know no one moves through life on victory laps and good will tours alone.
Starting at a young age I learned that it was very important to put on a smile in the morning. It was imperative to our family that their red curly haired girl wake up and do her best to be obedient, well mannered and cheerful. Looking back I see it for more of what it was: a survival mechanism. It served me well and I received “best smile” as my high school superlative. (Not surprising though as I had been working on this skill my entire life.) My Pollyanna personality was likely annoying to some but it was all I knew and it created peace. It also translated perfectly into a faith that I adopted in high school. I will never not be grateful for this faith that taught me how to hope and sustained me during some of my darkest days. But it was a faith that was flawed– fostering a facade of life being simple once you follow Jesus. I know my words may be misunderstood, so stay with me, I know Jesus says, “pick up your cross,” and the lives of he and his followers were marked by suffering. And yet, currently many Christians have taken and twisted this good news and placed prosperity and very simple spins on complex scripture. Americans are very uncomfortable with suffering and don’t appreciate being asked to walk the same road as the “man of sorrows” and so they are quick to ask those suffering to “consider it joy” and move past the painful parts inadvertently whitewashing our disappointment, confusion, suffering, or sadness. It is understandable, it appears a bit like bad PR for Christians to wear a frown instead of a smile. And so I shifted from one space of familiar expectation to another. I moved through my faith obedient, well-mannered, cheerful and with a smile…
Until the raw pain and loss and grief were so thick I could not see straight. Not for days, or weeks, or months, but years. And that pain also pulled back a curtain that opened my eyes in new ways to the deep suffering of others. Something to which I had in the past only given cliched lip service; I now saw the tremendous pain and suffering of the world and I could not unsee it, nor could I find any adequate words to explain it.
And that is the tension I live in. It is why my stories will always land bittersweet. They will always carry a major and minor key. I may personally be living in a triumphant moment, but I know there is always someone who I love who is experiencing the sinister notes. I also know strangely that I can be celebrating a beautiful “major” moment in the morning with my child and it takes only a ten minute drive to visit my mother with dementia (who does not recognize me) and peer in to her tiny shared medicaid bedroom with sights and smells that we as a society want to tuck away and not experience–and I am immediately surrounded by all of the dark notes. It is a ten minute drive between the bitter and the sweet. To be honest, I am thankful that I am masked in those moments because it is hard to find the smiles.
Today and throughout this Christmas season, may we hold in tension the beauty of the season–the lights, sights, gifts and joy. May we also remember Jesus was born amidst mud, manure and madness–his start in life has me believing he lived life on earth knowing the major and minor chords. Do not grow discouraged if you do not have a lot to smile about, and think that others do. They are likely only a ten minute drive to their bitter moments, they have only chosen to share the sweet. Or maybe they were asked to always put on a smile, maybe that was their survival, so there is grace. Or maybe they believe there is no point in dwelling on the negative, I can appreciate the sentiment but to buff out the pain is not real life at all. Embracing our pain creates compassion. So I will embrace both bitter and sweet; and as for me and my words–they will forever live in the tension of the two.
Whether you are in a major or minor key moment–or maybe a little of both…Merry Christmas.
All Christmas cards are welcome in my mailbox. Beautiful or Ugly.
2 thoughts on “My Ugly Christmas Card”
Thanks for sharing. Seeing my mom go through dementia/Alzheimer was among the most painful things I’ve ever been through. Praying for you and your mom.
Thank you Dave. Yes, it is a heartbreaking disease. Love to you and your family.